Whenever I hear the commentators on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series professing their admirable commitment to honor, family ties, work or poetry or the kindness of strangers, I always think, “This is all very nice and inspiring, but have these people heard of hushpuppies?” While other splendors and necessities improve, adorn and propel the world, the hushpuppy is the sine qua non, the raison d’etre and probably the prime directive in various other languages whose irregular verbs I have never attempted to conjugate. From my personal standpoint, the deep-fried hushpuppy ranks right up there with good health, a loving mate, rewarding work and spiritual fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not the kind of zealot who is blind to humanity’s other achievements. I also believe wholeheartedly in the hand brake, the rifled muzzle, the King James Version, vasectomies, single-barrel aging and hybrid roses. Those vital developments notwithstanding, the hushpuppy as conceived and consumed in the rural South is crux and hub and core.
Now I’m not about to define “hushpuppy” in some partisan and proprietary way, though it is kissing cousin to a fritter, neighbor to cornbread and a far cry from a crepe. I’m not even going to dictate how to concoct the ideal knee-knocking, unforgettable, whiplashing-scrumptious hushpuppy, other than to recommend some basic components and say that you’ve got to tickle the oil right up to about 400 degrees, which is also the temperature the mercury will register if you stick a thermometer under the tongue of most anyone in my family when their ire is aroused. Our tribe’s tendency to run hot and express our displeasure in unruly and emphatic fashion should right away clarify a couple of things: the oral method is the only fever measurement method worth trying on us, and don’t stand between us and anything we prize or favor, especially our preferred provender. But don’t get me wrong here; we are neither rabid nor deranged, only enthusiastic. Fervent, maybe. Smitten.
My family at one time, individually and collectively, knew how to make a hushpuppy so delicious it would make you cut a buck and wing and forswear indoor sports and week-night church. Although we would happily savor them in screen-porch fish camps – from Dowd’s Catfish on the Flint River in Georgia to the piratical Riverview Inn on the Catawba between Charlotte and Gastonia – it was the homemade item directly out of the deep fryer or skillet that hit the godspot. And of course, being in such proximity to the source, you’d always snatch up the first one out of the inferno and burn your tongue; that’s a requisite step in the rite. Try as you might to take the fire in and not receive a wound – like Isaiah himself with the smoking ember – you’d blister up and shout to Jesus and fan your mouth faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Meanwhile, you might be consoled by the fact that there’s a little “bliss” in “blister.” Then you’d blow on the bitten hushpuppy, shut your eyes in wonder and take another bite. I used to marvel, given the abundance of local wonders, that no one has ever claimed to discover the face of our Savior in the features of a fresh hushpuppy, because we do not live by bread alone. But who would delay consumption/consummation to conduct a finicky investigation? What hushpuppy survives long enough to be thus perused and pondered? Now you see it, now you don’t. We may save slices of wedding cake in the freezer or gallstones in a jelly jar of formaldehyde on the mantel, but the hushpuppy enjoys less longevity than your average caddis fly.
Caution and good medical sense dictate you should always lift the finished hushpuppy from the sizzling oil and set it on yesterday’s news or “Alley Oop” caveman funnies to drain a little grease, the mortal heart being vulnerable to fat and cholesterol and other more subtle perils, but caution and reason can be eclipsed by the sharp and alluring smell of anticipated fare, and my people are inclined to opt for the most immediate full-tilt gratification. If this means frequently falling for temptation, in the matter of hushpuppies, o felix culpa. The postlapsarian condition is, after all, the state in which we do our best work, and the blackjack hand of my ancestral genes tends to bless us all with robust hearts.
With the hushpuppy, you can scarcely blame the strong- or the weak-hearted for impatience, as the delights start potent and just keep coming in a happy sequence, from the lovely cicada-husk color of the puppy to the crisp, gritty texture of the outer shell, which is rough enough to burnish oak planks but breaks open to reveal a spongy trove of yellowy dough in which all the flavors of the exercise are mingled and transformed. Even the slickness your fingertips retain after the repast and the streaks wiped on your dungarees contribute to the lingering delight. I should acknowledge here and now that those less discerning than my kith and kin might be tempted to drop by Food Lion or The Pig and pick up a short-cut mix – say Dixie Lilly or Uncle Buck’s – but trust me on this: you will find that experience a tame and diminished thing, if you have ever tasted the “scratch” hushpuppy in its natural habitat. Which may not be a fund raiser for a local firehouse (which will remain unnamed) along the Maury River.
Some few civilians don’t know a hushpuppy needs more than a pinch of cane sugar, and others don’t understand about the onions, the snipped-up shoots of young green ones fresh out of the kitchen garden, if you’re lucky enough to have access, but it’s not my business to offer exhaustive instructions on Cracker cuisine, only to testify that we made them and ate them as we quarreled and joked, lied and scuffled and vied to impress one another, and despite the risks inherent in both family gatherings and the unforgiving species of cholesterol, many of us are thriving still. My father’s father J. J. W. Smith was in fact the best hushpuppy chef in unrecorded history, and he so clearly understood how crucial to this delicacy is a side of fried fish that he excavated his own pond and stocked it. Not with bass of the large or small mouth varieties and more shades of gray than a unit of Sandlapper cavalry, not even with those bream we called “sunfish” and which are dazzling as a buccaneer’s casket of jeweled swag. The bottom-feeding sly and conniving whiskery catfish is your only true ally in this gustatory matter, and you must litter the floor of your pond with trees and junk – old bikes and tires and plows, now and then the carcass of a whitetail deer. Deeply secret items, too, no doubt. You cannot safely practice the modified American crawl in such waters, but you can lure your quarry with rubber worm or blood liver or cheese or maybe even just the right low-country hoodoo spell. Most likely you should go ahead and allow one of his javelin barbels to gaff you when you unhook your prey, as the bubbling grease appreciates a drop or two of human blood, if you want to stay in mythic territory, which I obviously do. But no matter how slick he skins out when spiked on a plank nor how sweet and moist he cooks up, no matter how gold-gowned he is in his own batter and how crisp and peppery his tail, he remains, as I have mentioned, always an auxiliary item.
Furthermore, dear hearts, as Brother Dave Gardner used to say, don’t neglect the supporting cast of coleslaw and sliced red Better Boys and maybe mustard potato salad, cob corn (Silver Queen!), perhaps a crock of molasses-baked beans, all nearly necessary, all Friday-night special. Still, the cornmeal hushpuppy amplified with just a hint of cayenne and a dusting of salt and black pepper, is the redneck nexus. Ice tea, Dr Pepper or bottle beer, it goes without saying (and Jax it was, back in my salad days), maybe a dill pickle and pimiento cheese sandwich while you’re waiting, but you all know what you’ve really congregated to partake of and celebrate, and you refuse to be distracted by supplemental minor pleasures. At least, my tribe always did.
Of course, there was some smidgen of pretext. Both wings of my family hail from just outside Spalding County, Georgia’s county seat, Griffin, where according to homegrown lore Doc J. Henry Holliday first practiced dentistry, sarcasm and deadeye marksmanship. The downtown noise-ordinance zone was once an hour from Atlanta but is now virtually swarming with polyglot wireless Hotlanta commuters whose sir names I wouldn’t recognize. When I was a boy, though, and summering on the farm to teach me labor and discipline, stalk hunting, Bible verses and the mysteries of animal husbandry, there wasn’t much call for a full-dress formal clan reunion (though I must spell that carefully, as some shadow branches of my clan were rumored to do dark and shameful things by moonlight under the guise of a supposed fraternal bond the family never did, in quorum, endorse). We saw each other at the feed store, the sanctuary, hooch haven, the ball field, the gin, the barber and farmers market and so on, but we’d still convene by consensus just because we could, and because maybe we had grave plots to dispute, headstones to tidy or bushels of peas to hull, a fresh will to decipher or just a new in-law to welcome and interrogate and appraise, meaning fellowship and good stories, petty dueling and flirting and merciless mutual scrutiny, but for my money the hushpuppies remained the cardinal attraction. It didn’t hurt that Uncle Rufus ran a grist mill on Greedy Faith Creek, and since everybody had some acres in corn (and some not destined for gallon jugs), any branch of the family could supply the meal ground to ideal fineness guaranteed to retain a little stimulating grit in the final product. Buttermilk was similarly acquired, home-harvested, though you don’t exactly have to shuck a cow. And lately I’ve come to believe that moths martyred in the grease and accompanying mockingbird chivaree were essential ingredients, as well, and neither item was ever in short supply. Or so I have evidently chosen to remember it.
Who was there, lounging on the lawn, slouching by the horseshoe pits or leaning back to see the clouds and then the summer stars – sparks of the Swan and the Harp – from the tire swing’s black zero, strutting and declaiming, hide-and-seeking, bantering or confiding? Not too many, though Uncle Coit, who married my daddy’s sister Doreen, was raised Jehovah’s Witness, so to keep the Kingdom Hall brethren appeased she had produced a full brood, from Hannah to Ruby-Dean, Ruth and Thaddeus and five or six more. The older girls were not spare nor spindly and neither cut their hair nor painted their faces. They obeyed adults with an annoying dispatch and thoroughness, but to my mind they were wholly redeemed by their blue-bright eyes and skill with the button accordion. Under the right fingers, even “Hey Diddle-diddle” has its charm, and even a spirited hymn has often been able to set me to dancing, orthodox dogma notwithstanding, if I have a plate of proper hushpuppies at my disposal. And my mother’s sister, Doreen Two, had married a pipeline worker named Theodore but always addressed as T-Henry. He told randy jokes, sang “Yes, Elvis Loves Me” and smoked Carter Hall in his pipe, adding to the atmosphere and general sophistication. My middle name comes from him, and it is reputed to mean “beloved of God,” though I long ago learned in a dream that it truly means “Hushpuppy Enthusiast.” I do love an edifying dream.
My daddy Smitty learned the black arts of outdoor frying from his sire and was himself a master of the tongs and pepper shaker. He has always known how much egg to work into the batter, and no matter how many puppies you aim for, it’s never a whole number of eggs. Two and a third, or three goos/four suns. Or most likely something like nineteen and a half, as you don’t ever want to run short. Smitty is a man who likes to instruct and organize and direct, and under other circumstances, I have always imagined, might have been a symphony conductor, instead of a cop.
My mother was a delicate and discrete eater, a house cat and whisperer, so I have little memory of her at these pseudo-Eucharistic feasts, and my sister was too young through the highest times to be more than a swaddled squall and a blue-eyed puzzlement. My father’s mother wore chunky boots about the yard – under the waspy scuppernong arbor and by the blacksnake’s fig tree, beside the appleshade anvil, into the vegetable rows and over at the simmering trash barrel with its firefly-winking scraps rising with the acrid smoke at dusk like fragmented bats. She was the primary catcher of fishes, a surreptitious Tube Rose dipper and rustler-up of ancillary items from the kitchen, but she had little hand in the conjuring of the “host,” if I can push my reverence for hushpuppies that far without inviting lightning.
You always want a seasoned white oak spoon to beat the batter, and you need to add your ingredients with some rhythm and whip it around with disciplined fury. Elbow grease at that stage is crucial to the desired effect and never hard to find, because every leaf on the family tree wants some of the credit when the chorus of compliments begins to resound. As it happens, there’s always at least a relative or two with fond recollection of a Ford model-A crank who would rather turn the ice cream freezer for old time’s sake, so laggards won’t be underfoot. What’s in that cylinder encased in the rock salt inside the cedar bucket exists to provide a kind of palate-cleansing afterglow, and likely Uncle T-Henry Theodore or his adopted daughter Janeanne (former spouse of Alton Banjo) has picked the peaches at Pomona out McIntosh Road that very afternoon. Some males are born for crank competition and will supervise and warm up to the slow rotation of that sweat-dyed handle, flexing muscles and growling till the confection is firm.
The vocal majority milling about and inhaling the pine-scented air (I called them the Salivation Army) passionately prefers to beat the puppy batter, to work it toward the shaping stage, the paste consistency ready to dollop the size of a crabapple, and not everybody can: the “too many cooks” danger and so on. The me-next competition will cause more scuffles and bruises than a misplaced kiss behind the abelia, and before it’s over there’s going to be sharp words and sneers, and somebody’s likely going to seize up a hoe handle or a tomato stake, while the dogs Kicky and Spot and Trixie dart and circle and snap, and then Grandaddy will have to flip aside his Herbert Tareyton cigarette and pull from his coverall pocket an old Smith & Wesson 32.20, once nickeled like a mirror but losing plate in flakes, and discharge it into the air. The conspicuous report and attendant whiff of cordite are part of the ritual (he called the gun Us & Wesson), and his lead target load might whistle through the willow crown or pecan canopy or just rise and rise until it became a star, but the message was unmistakable. Even the dogs shut up and slunk off. Even the accordion wheezed to a silence.
This brings me to the story, legend maybe, that hushpuppies were devised for throwing to dogs to occupy their jaws and stifle their howls and yowls and mendicant whimpers. You can easily see the etymological temptation in that apocryphal notion, but if you have ever eaten the 24 caret hushpuppy, you will affirm that nobody would donate a fresh one to a dog unless that animal was two hundred pounds of frothing, snarling cur with his eyes fixed on your carotid artery. Or if somehow all the bipeds were already filled to the gills, which seldom happens. So where did the word come from, if not meant (in an isotope of the Irish eist) to HUSH the feisty pets? A popular story goes that Ursuline nuns in New Orleans before the Purchase conjured up a treat called croquettes de maise, which could mark the hushpuppy’s genesis, and those who do not declare that hunters (or slaves or croppers or Confederate camp cooks) hurled them to the hounds like sops to Cerberus . . . well, those folks will tell you that salamanders were once named “water dogs” in the hand-thrown language called the vernacular, and that cooked hushpuppies were somewhat cylindrical, like a finger or a lizard. The name came from the resemblance – size and shape – that story goes. But just take a hard gander at a salamander and a hushpuppy – not one from Captain D’s or Cracker Barrel or some Southern Culture Ethnology Workshop or Oxford John expert article, but a backyard, iron-pot, family-caucus, Friday-night, wait-your-by-God-turn hushpuppy, and then run your eyes over a lizard. No match, Butch. There just has to be another explanation.
Our family was somewhat more extensive and metaphorical than I’ve let on, and there were biddies and bulls and boars and cygnets in human form, as well as a patriarch, though not my daddy’s daddy’s daddy, who had gone on to what’s rumored to be a sweeter realm. The sovereign and wizened presiding grand geezer was a House, who had once lived briefly for some unfathomable reason in Michigan cherry country and had in a rare fit of appropriate ardor sired my daddy’s mama. I’m likely getting in big trouble here with the ghosts, because I was allowed to call her only “Grandmother,” as if we were fugitives from a Henry James novel, and to name her otherwise was to court a switching – that abelia bush again, red wand stripped of leaflets, whish and whish against bare skin. Even when people said on my birthday, “Make a wish,” I couldn’t banish that whipping sound and memory of the sting, the welts across my calves. But her daddy in his eighties was earthy as a red wiggler, and he loved to laugh and spiel yarns rife with non sequiturs and misdirections, Minos-mazes with a shaggy dog, snoring bear or besmirched preacher at the finish. His daughter, assisted by her daughter-in-law, was forever trying to shush him, forever failing. I expect they were a little embarrassed by his jovial and transgressive yarning, his irreverent loose-cannon wit. Once he told me, whispering so she wouldn’t know, that he was himself traveling cheek-by-jowl with the shepherd boy Jack when he climbed the Bible beanstalk to stone the mighty Goliath. You can see how that brand of mischief might offend a pious daughter, who was in her own advanced age sterner than Cotton Mather, but who I believed to be, in her secret hours, something of a misery witch. And when he’d peeve her so much she fumed and gave off steam (remember that congenital temperature business), she’d fall back on the makeshift and functional, even quietly affectionate language of her past. She’d say, though nearly hissing it, “Hush, Pappy.” In fact, she’d offer him a glass or plate of anything to pinch his story off. Any morsel or potation to fill his mouth and chew or swallow, with the one exception of that unmentionable contraband smelling of rotten eggs in a jar hidden in an old ammo box in the garage or behind a loose board in the coop. It seems a viable etymology to me: “Pappy” to “puppy” just a vowel slip on a warm cricket night, perhaps two centuries back. He or any other raconteur would surely have abbreviated his usual narrative peregrination at the offer of a hushpuppy. And by the way, his name was Rory, and he was dedicated to the notion that bacon grease had to be involved in the recipe and that the curly snags on the surface of the puppy that result from drips and dribbles must be scorched deep, deep brown before the glory was full. If they came out just sort of panther amber, he’d call them fool’s gold and scowl. Of course, he’d devour them, just the same.
It seems important to testify that no disproportion of ingredient (not even the necessary near-nothing of baking soda administered to excess), no mis-distribution of the puppies in the batch nor absence of cane sugar in the final product ever pushed anyone in my family to words and actions so absolute that a rush to the hospital would have to follow. We skirmished and fenced, jeered and snickered and regrouped and pretended to tolerate one another. My cousin Larry Grady Giles was, however, accidentally splashed with grease from a skillet in 1959 and to this day carries a scar shaped like Denmark on his shoulder. Rubydean’s Paolo Soprani squeeze box was once stomped beyond repair amid a sparring match over two dresses cut from the same bolt. My own first frog-goggley spectacles broke against a flagstone because the other Giles boy, Jerry, slapped me with malice aforethought. I kicked him back in the knee and counted it even. And though I got a switching later, his knee joint swelled up and took on the color of a spoiled Talmadge ham, as I got in a good lick and was wearing steel toe barn brogans, not some lightweight suede shoe named and patented as “Hushpuppy” by some wistful footwear entrepreneur.
Perhaps inevitably, this brings me to manna, as that’s after all what I ultimately believe in: a culinary gift beyond explanation and sure to inspire and help you survive, rejoice and misbehave. You don’t have to search for it or earn it, for divine agency is real, and the Mighty Mystery, being indefatigable, hardly sleeps a weary wink. When I was a boy, I already knew our visit to this realm is brief – that swallow passing briefly through the mead hall’s light, then out again into unforgiving winter – and I wanted some reward for enduring the tribulations that would surpass licorice twists or deep dish pie or promises of adult independence, and on many a summer night there it was. Behold: hushpuppy, sacrament, manna. Not sage-tamed possum and sweet potato, not blackberry cobbler with today’s cream just whipped up. Not even Tabasco oysters on a saltine, but hushpuppy, born of sugar and corn, Dominecker egg and buttermilk, the fires of Hell and grease that might be Crisco or Wesson but might even be from rendered lard. Lord, yes. It takes me back, and then we’d have sparklers and rockets and rainbow-splash starshells, yawns and covert kisses and “Goodnight Ladies” on the accordion, back-cracking hugs all around and “look after yourself, you hear,” as the engines sputtered and caught and revved, a klaxon horn squawked a few bars of “Dixie,” followed by headlights ghosting past the abelia and willows, hydrangea, myrtle.
When the dust from parting trucks and cars would settle on us and the honeysuckle and the shorn lawn alike, when grandmother had concluded her prayers and other conjurations, glassed her teeth and switched off her bedside light as the dogs curled on their pallets, my grandfather and I would traipse back up the terraces of the grazing meadow to the pond he’d gouged with an Allis-Chalmers tractor over three years to fill with rainwater and catfish so we could revel in just such serendipities. He’d always say, “Don’t you step on a copperhead, son; don’t wake the skunks,” and I’d promise not to. We’d tote the catfish bones on amber Depression glass platters and, standing on the bank, fling them out in a high arc, give them back to the water, then turn together and piss eastward with sighs of content and relief.
And so to sleep, now as then, as rehearsing this clement and soporific scene closes off memories of my favorite delicacy and gentles down all the commotion, including the how and why of frying hushpuppies and devouring them like nomadic starvelings on any available occasion. The exercise leaves me feeling almost shriven.
Our time on this planet is short, and it might seem somewhat mean-spirited, despite my aversion to dictating taste, to conclude this treatise without revealing more than a scatter of details about the Smith-Griffin Weekend Hushpuppy Wonder. A recipe is not a treasure map, and even the proper ingredients and proportions can go awry without a vigilance intense enough to pass for reverence. Maybe it’s worth asserting here that, no matter how the place attracted its name, a Griffin is a mythical and mongrel beast somehow half eagle and half panther, with a diamondback for a tail, as I’ve heard tell from that eloquent House patriarch, so it wouldn’t be surprising if this recipe didn’t require that each cook add or change or subtract a portion of some surprising creature according to the demands of the moment and idiosyncratic taste.
Some of the peculiars might include creamed corn, slivered tomatoes, even a splash of beer, but the obligatories are a deep kettle or skillet (or a skettle!) of grease (lard or Crisco preferred) at just shy of 400 degrees (the boil beads winking the size of an adult gray squirrel’s eye). You can test it by slipping in a smidgen of batter to see if it floats. I’m scaling down quantities for practicality, but you need at least four cups of the oil, and you blend together in a clay bowl two cups of yellow cornmeal, a cup of all-purpose flour, one and a third eggs, a cup of buttermilk, a cup of spring water, ¾ teaspoon of salt topped by ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. Whip that about con brio till all the lumps give up the ghost. Then see if the batter is cohering to appropriate collops. If it seems too dry, dash in more milk; if too feeble, add meal. This is when you dose the magma with a dash of Tabasco, pinch of cayenne, cane sugar, pepper, onions diced fine, bell pepper bits. Proportion depends upon your personal knot of nature and nurture, wind velocity, humidity, last year’s wooly worm coloration and what key the squeezebox is playing in. I do not recommend adding snuff, cigarette ash or mosquitoes, but if they manage to finagle their way in, silence is advisable, and they will do no more harm than the sweat that is destined to trickle from the chef. Your actual puppy dollops should be smaller than a hen egg, and they’ll be done in about 300 seconds. I do advise cutting back the oil heat just as you spoon the puppies in. They’ll float, and as you rescue each gold-brown treat from the boil, you can (if you must) preserve their freshness in an oven at about 200 degrees, but after half an hour they’ll start to rebel and lose their magic.
This small caliber recipe should make enough hushpuppies to offer each of the original dozen disciples a pair, which would be adequate to convert them to this cult but not to satisfy them. But then, how many would qualify as “a gracious plenty,” enough to sate a real aficionado? You can never speak for the incurable gluttons, but a simple optimist will be able to settle for six or eight at one sitting, assured that other evenings, other feasts will bring additional servings, and I do believe that possibility alone is enough reason to enlist among the dedicated Pollyannas and keep your eye on the road, your ear to the ground, your shoulder to the wheel, your eye on the sparrow. At least for me, one question is settled: if I’m ever in a situation to be offered the option, I know what I’ll request for my last meal. Honi soit qui mal y pense, puppy.
Published in Zoetrope, 2006 (and later in Redux)
[I had previously written a short story based on one of our Georgia family’s antic reunions, but the narrative was unsatisfactory because my kin came across as fugitives from central casting, their outbursts too much like Faux Faulkner 101, their attitudes toward the food more endearing than their feelings toward one another. It was probably an attempt to get at the riddles at the root of the family tree, a fool’s errand. Once I realized how the menu, especially the hushpuppies, constituted the heart of the piece, I understood that I preferred to write a personal essay about Southern food as a symptom of Southern cult and culture. Like everyone who endeavors to recall and recount, I telescoped, embellished, fabricated and marinated where necessary, kneaded and conjured to provide sketchy memory with coherence and continuity, but as Huck says of Mark Twain, I “told the truth, mainly.”]
R. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995.